Can you have the best of all the worlds? Possibly, if you go to Shoja, a lesser known gem of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh.
If you go mid-summer onwards, a red carpet welcome awaits you – the 38 km (24 miles) drive from Aut near Kullu to Shoja will be lined with trees laden with apples till they are harvested in August and September. The meandering drive is no less beautiful at other times, lined with rhododendrons and other flora depending on the time of the year.
If your idea of a holiday is to sit back and soak in your surroundings, you are at the right place. The deep valleys with their rich, green forests and the high peaks around can be admired for hours and even days. A part of the Great Himalayan National Park, it is just the setting to take walks in the woods and be very close to all the diversity nature has to offer. It often rains in the afternoons – and that is the time to order some tea and hot pakoras.
There is enough for even those seeking an adrenalin rush. You can start with an hour long warm-up hike to a nearby waterfall, located on a trail leading away from the road to Jalori Pass. Watch out for palm sized mushrooms on the path, abundant during the monsoon season. Get yourself drenched in the freezing water, lie back on the rocks to dry yourself out and feast over a packed picnic.
Raise the challenge one notch higher and walk all the way to Jalori Pass, a five-kilometer hike on a steep road. Recharge yourself with some tea and Glucose biscuits at the dhabas there before you head back. Or you can continue further on some famous trails.
The first takes you to Raghupur Fort. A gentle terrain through forests of oaks and rhododendrons, it offers near-360 degree views of the Himalayas, Dhauladhar and Kinnaur ranges along the way. The history of the fort is not known for sure, but locals believe an erstwhile king of Mandi got it constructed as either a safe house in case of attacks by enemies or as a getaway for his pleasures. Whatever the reasons, and despite the scarcity of water, the king could not have chosen a better location. Ask the sheep and goats – a photo opportunity themselves – who love to graze at the meadows of the fort.
Another trail – six kilometers long – from the Jalori pass takes you the Serolsar Lake. It may be small, but its water is crystal clear. Locals believe you will never find a leaf in this lake despite being surrounded by trees. It seems to be true. You will also find a temple close by – never a surprise in Himachal Pradesh known as Dev Bhoomi, or Land of the Gods. Enterprising locals run tea shops here to feed the visitors who have built up an appetite after the walk.
You can never have enough of Shoja – and will want to go back any number of times.
* Weather: Pleasant days from April to October, but nights can get cold. Can be wet in July and August. Very cold with snow from November to March. Always carry warm clothes.
* Best time to go: April to October.
* How to reach: Catch a flight to Shimla or Kullu and by road from there. Or all the way by road.
* Accommodation: Your best option by far is Banjara Camps. There are a few other hotels and guest houses for all budgets.
* Approximate Distances: Shimla: 230 kms (143 miles); Delhi: 600 kms (375 miles).
* Recommended Stay: At least 2 days.
The Golden Triangle of Himachal
Shoja, Thanedar and Sangla form a great Golden Triangle, each a few hours from the other. If starting from Delhi, you could head to Thanedar first, on to Sangla and then to Shoja before heading back. Or the other way round. Sangla should always be the middle stop – it takes two days to drive back to Delhi for most drivers and you Shoja or Thanedar can be a night halt. If you are headed to Lahaul Spiti, then the routing should be Shoja – Thanedar – Sangla before heading to Spiti. When coming down from Spiti, reverse the order.